Loretta waged war against the museum curators. They never saw her coming. She was the speck of dust tightrope-walking through the air, the rain left standing in pools by the entrance on rainy days. Loretta began to pull the museum apart like a Jenga tower, piece by piece. She did not believe in museums.
On Monday, Loretta slid through the Mezzanine Gallery with no shoes on, slick as an eel. The eyes of the paintings watched her go. They had too many eyes, and too many fingers and toes, their skins shallow water, as if you could reach in and touch their bones. The painted ladies gazed at Loretta from behind their layers of paint. They had sad tongues under their wet pink smiles, and their hands ached, they ached. On New Year’s Day Loretta had broken into the museum with rags wrapped around her feet; she lay on the floor of the Mezzanine Gallery, reading aloud from a book of poetry, and then she cried until all the words ran together. The painted ladies could only smile. Their eyes were coat-hooks for bad weather.
If you had a map of the museum, it would look like a map of your own heart. It would have valves and ventricles. You could not navigate it alone.
Loretta had been at war with the museum curators for a week now. Each day she grew closer to destroying them. The curators were not exactly aware of this, but Loretta knew that they were very dim-witted men, and her hard work would not be wasted on them in the end.
“Loretta, wait,” said her friend, balancing brown bags in her arms, vegetables and bread from the Dun Laoghaire market. “Where are you running off to? You haven’t eaten anything for days. I’ve hardly seen you all week. Have you slept? You look like hell.” She dumped the bags of food down on the counter top. “I worry,” she said, as if she wanted to sound like she didn’t.
Loretta said, “I’ve been busy.”
“Too busy to eat? You know you’ve been wearing that same dress for three days, don’t you? You’ve barely even said hello to me.” Her friend turned away and began unpacking the brown paper bags, slamming down plastic containers of stuffed olives and skeletal ginger roots with the earth still on them. “It’s called common courtesy,” she said crossly. Loretta couldn’t see the expression on her face.
“I got a job,” said Loretta, who could lie like a cat when she had to. “Look, I’m sorry I haven’t been around much, but I need the money. You know I need the money. He works all hours. He’s eccentric, but he pays gold.” She wanted to catch the breath in her friend’s mouth, or scrape fingers down her friend’s skin, to see if she was made of paint and turpentine too. “So I’ll pay the rent this month,” she said instead. “I owe you a lot more, but it’s something, isn’t it?”
“Loretta, you know you don’t—”
“I have to go,” Loretta said, because she did. She had work to do.
On Tuesday a storm blew in from Dublin Bay. It battered down the museum doors, silver-polishing the rain gutters, whitewashing the marble. Wet leaves caught in the teeth of the two stone lions guarding the museum door. Broken umbrellas littered the streets like dead flies. The museum curators did not notice Loretta creeping through the halls on all fours, leaving no rain-prints on the ground. She became queen of the elevator system. She was a coal-skuttle in the museum basement, shovelling up ashes in the dark. The museum opened to her like a fist. She would go home with shoes full of soot, if she ever went home.
Loretta stole scones from the museum café for lunch and ate them in the vents above the sculpture room, while seventeenth-century busts watched with their white eyes, lidless as the eyes of fish. Eurydice was Loretta’s favourite. Eurydice had been led out of hell on a string and her skin was soft and cold as talcum powder. Sometimes Loretta sang to her, apologetically, because Loretta had a tendency to sing out of tune, and Eurydice had heard far better. Loretta sang the songs her friend sang over the kitchen sink. They were all sad and much too high.
The sculptures breathed slowly, in and out.
And Loretta worked all day. She watched the museum curators like a spider, spinning. They ran back and forth as if their work was desperately important, as if they were swinging up the sky on a line of red velvet rope. When Loretta blew handfuls of flour out of a ceiling grate at them, as an experiment, they scattered like ants. Their black boots left white footprints over the carpeted stairs. She reached her long arms down and stole the ring of keys from a curator’s belt, and it fit her wrist like a bracelet of fingerbones. Somewhere in the chambers of the museum’s heart, the paintings and the sculptures stirred.
Once Loretta had stood naked in a forest of black velvet while heat from fat yellow lightbulbs blinded and warmed her like a baby in a womb. She had stood very still. That was one of her talents, one of her weapons in the museum war. A faceless man in a black aviator jacket painted her for hours. Loretta saw only bright light, and when she closed her eyes it was sunset. She had sand in her hair. The world grew smaller, settling like ashes, and when the faceless man moved her arm or her leg she bent to him like clay. Loretta thought of nothing. She was very good at that.
And later, a long time later, the faceless man invited her to his show. Women came and went in thin black heels and waiters offered Loretta tiny salmon sandwiches on cocktail sticks, but she did not want food, the way paintings do not want food. Loretta stared at the painting of herself. Painted Loretta had scorch-marks on her legs and her eyes were pockets full of sand. Her wrists were roof-slates where the wind came in. Loretta and Painted Loretta watched each other for a long time, until the waiters told her politely that the exhibition was over, the museum was closing, and would she like them to call a taxi? No, Loretta said, and left.
Painted Loretta dreamed of salt. In the dry season she was a wishing well. Painted Loretta beat the heart of the Mezzanine Gallery, which was Loretta’s heart.
Early Wednesday morning Loretta crawled home to find her friend waiting, huddled knees-up on the counter top, wearing a long lace nightgown and pink gloves with the fingers cut out. She had been crying. “Look,” she said, “please, Loretta, just tell me what’s going on. Is it the drugs again? It’s okay if it is, I just—I just want to know. I want you to tell me.”
Loretta’s friend had sad eyes and she wore too many necklaces, so many it looked as though her neck might snap under the weight one day. She collected used stamps and stuck them to the refrigerator door. In the middle of the night she was a radiator.
Loretta left without answering.
At the bathroom mirror she tried to see desert in her reflection, but there was only rain. She slid into a big black jacket, snug like a cocoon for fat white worms, and walked out towards the storm. “Wait,” her friend said, “please. I can’t do this anymore.”
Loretta wanted to tell her friend that she could feel the heartbeat buried in her wrist, the secret noise. That she knew these secrets: her friend’s body was an earthquake, her backbone a fault line. Her friend was not as fragile as she looked.
“I have to go,” she said.
Wind tugged Loretta close. Her breath made white filigrees in the air. This early in the morning the museum looked like a black face, with fluted columns for teeth and a wicked smile. Its heart beat faster to feel her coming. Loretta stepped into the museum’s open mouth.
She walked the empty galleries barefoot with her thin white knife, splitting canvas like meat until her hands dripped paint. The painted ladies walked out of their paintings. They smelled of oranges and star anise. Their smiles had teeth now. One by one the painted ladies brushed past Loretta, blessing her with their papery hands at her throat, her forehead. Loretta’s knife cracked marble and plaster from the sculptures until the sculptures slid out. They had soft white bodies, like uncooked dough. She thought of her friend, of what might sit underneath her skin.
The rooms disappeared behind her, cut by cut, until Loretta stood in front of Painted Loretta in the Mezzanine Gallery, with the black window beside them. Loretta studied Painted Loretta for a long time. She raised her knife. The sun rose over the water.
All day long, rich eighteenth-century women walked among the crowds on Grafton Street, their long dresses whipping, with crumbs of ice in their eyes like Kay in the fairy tale. Abstracts with dripping features rode the train line up and down. In the storm they shuffled like playing cards. They held court over the city. Somewhere along the Quays, Eurydice walked into the Liffey beside shopping trolleys and empty bottles, her eyes a mirror of green water and light. Weeds rolled over her.
Painted Loretta stayed out in the bad weather until her arms became teardrops, her legs stuck in quicksand. She drank pocketfuls of storm. Her teeth were lighthouses to capture ships against the rocks. Painted Loretta left desert behind. Her hands filled up with rain, filled up with storm, the storm Dublin was built of, all the canals and cobblestones, tourists and junkies and graffiti and litter and rain. Somewhere in the city Loretta drowned.